Aesthetics of the Cross in Medieval Commentary

Crucifix of San Gimignano (Source)
One of the goals of LAJ is to showcase the breathtaking beauty of Catholic liturgical culture. From the general reaction to the stunning images that are shared on LAJ's Facebook page (which, at the time this was written, has over 11,000 followers), it is clear that this is a useful and edifying approach that many crave for. If Catholics recover their self-respect, there’s no reason the modern version of the pagan (or Catholic, for that matter!) shouldn’t say of the Latins what the awestruck Russian pilgrims said about the Greeks of old:
“Then we came to the Greeks, and we were taken to the place where they worship their God [....] We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendour or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty.”
Of course, if taken in isolation, such things can give rise to (unjust) criticisms of aestheticism, of a “bells and whistles” approach to Catholicism. The other side of the liturgical coin that goes along with the material beauty of these liturgical elements is their spiritual meaning. If every word in Scripture has a literal and spiritual sense, analogously each liturgical item has both a literal, artistic sense and a spiritual-aesthetic sense that draws it into the very unaesthetic reality of Christ’s bloody Passion and our own tribulation-filled participation in that Passion.

Fr. Nicholas Gihr explains the place of mystical interpretation:
"All that is precious belongs to the Lord and should serve to promote His glory; therefore, the Church would have not only rich vessels, but also handsome vestments for the service of the altar. The richness and the value of the sacred vestments betoken and awaken due reverence for Divine service, and set forth before the faithful the incomprehensible grandeur and holiness of the mysteries of the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Vestments for Divine worship become sacred in a special manner by reason of the blessing of the Church imparted to them, and of their religious symbolical meaning [....] The sacred vestments enjoy another religious feature by means of the mystic-symbolical (mysterious) meaning which the Church ascribes to them, and which should be ascribed to them. In the meaning of the Church of God there is nothing merely exterior: all is figurative and expressive of the interior, there all is "spirit and life". The Church endeavors, namely, to spiritualize and transform, so to speak, corporeal things by means of higher, supernatural relations, in order to direct the observing, reflecting mind of the faithful to what is invisible, divine and eternal.

This is also the case with the liturgical vestments, which thus acquire the significance and virtue of a picture; for they indicate not only in general the majesty of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, but they express, in a special way, manifold mysteries that excite and nourish devotion. The sacred vestments are full of salutary instruction and admonition for all that will comprehend their meaning and attend to their language. Even if they were not originally introduced on account of this symbolism, the Church afterward justly ascribed to them a higher and mystical meaning, inasmuch as she made use, for example, of the name and origin, the color and destination, the usage and form, as well as the method and manner of putting on and wearing the vestments, in order to express mysteries of the life of Christ and of faith, and moral admonitions. The symbolical conception and meaning of the liturgical vestments is, therefore, fully justified and established."[1]
Torculus Christi, Giovanni Gasparro
In other words, excellent liturgical art is an imperative, and it becomes especially spiritually useful to us when we see them in light of the mysteries of the Passion. Gihr’s thought dovetails well with what Ratzinger said about the connection between Eucharist and life. Without sacred art pointing us to the Cross, the Eucharist would remain mere ritual:

“Just as the Cross of Christ provides the eucharistic liturgy with its reality and content and lifts it above what is merely ritual and symbolic, making it into the real worship for all the world, so the Eucharist must ever and again press out beyond the sphere of mere cult, must become reality over and beyond that sphere, precisely in order that it may wholly become what it is and remain what it is.” [2]

The Eucharist “presses out” to give the Christian virtues a cultic center, so that “they are brought into line with the Cross of Christ himself, so that they appear as the continuing realization of what is portrayed in the Eucharist, and thus hold fast, throughout the epoch of the Church, that close connection between sacrament and life which stand at the origin of the Sacrament and is what alone constitutes the Sacrament as such.” [3]

The medieval translation offered below is an example of this “pressing out” of the sacramentality of Catholic art. Honorius draws each priestly garment into the Paschal Mystery, making it a sign of the Passion of Christ or of Christ's virtues. Each of the virtues signified by a garment is won in the hard toil of asceticism, and all find their unity in the priest’s cultic character. The priest becomes a walking symbolic embodiment of asceticism.

In this light, any accusation of “aestheticism” disappears entirely: since allegory relentless directs the aesthetic exterior into a dramatic revelation of the Passion of Christ, and of our own Passions lived on its model. Allegory makes ascetic, along with aesthetic liturgical participation possible, making every liturgical instrument an instrument of our own Passion.

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On the Priestly Vestments

Blessed Pius IX, Gasparro (Source)

Ch. 198
On the Sacred Vestments

We have spoken thus far briefly about the ministers of the Church, now a few points must be added on the sacred vestments. Sacred vestments are taken from the Old Law. The ministers of Christ and his Church serve in white vestments because the angels, the ministers of the eternal king, appeared in white garments. Through the white vestments ministers working in the service of Christ are admonished to imitate the purity and chastity of the angels, who are the ministers of God. But the vestments that decorate the exterior stand for the virtues that adorn the interior man. Now there are seven vestments assigned to priests, for they are marked with the seven-fold orders so that they may shine with the seven virtues given by the seven-fold Spirit, and so adorned may proceed with the angels in the service of Christ.

Ch. 199
On the Priest’s Preparation

The priest who is to celebrate Mass, i.e. to wage spiritual warfare on behalf of the Church, must gird himself with spiritual weapons so that he may be defended against enemy’s temptations toward the vices. First he takes off his ordinary garments and puts on clean ones because one who is about to handle or receive the Body of Christ must take off the old man and his works, which are vices and sin, and "put on the new man," i.e. the virtues and good works, "according to the likeness of God" (Ephesians 4). Then he combs his hair because the priest must compose his mind. He rinses his hands with water because he must wash away carnal works with weeping. Finally he washes any uncleanness from them because it is fitting for him to wipe away all works of the flesh through penitence.

Ch. 200
On the Washing of Hands

Before they sacrificed, the priests of the Law washed themselves in a basin made from the mirrors of the women who served at the entrance of the tabernacle. The basin made from the mirrors of women is Sacred Scripture, which is written about the conspicuous lives of holy souls. The women served at the entrance of the tabernacle because they yearned without ceasing after God’s eternal tabernacle. Priests on their way to sacrifice must wash in this basin, i.e. consider their life diligently in light of Sacred Scripture, purge themselves from faults by following the examples of the saints, and only then begin the Lord’s sacrifice.

Ch. 201
On the Amice

Next the priest puts on what the Law called the ephod (Exodus 30) and what we call the amice (amictus). It covers the head, neck, and shoulders (hence its name humerale) and is fastened with two ribbons at the breast. We wear it on our head, signifying hope for heavenly things, and we cover our head with the amice when we serve God in hope for heavenly things. We also use it to cover our neck, by which the voice is expressed, and we do this in hope of life, putting so to speak a guard on our mouth (Psalm 140:3) as a warning not to let any word escape our mouths unless it be to the praise of God. We cover our shoulders, which carry burdens, if we bear the Lord’s light yoke patiently. We do this if we undertake the works of the active life in hope of future things and come to our neighbor’s aid in times of need. The corners of the amice signify faith and works, which are both tied to hope. The corners are folded over one another in front of the chest, the upper one concealing the lower. This is because faith and works are joined, but faith is hidden in the heart, while works are manifest publicly for the edification of our neighbor. One corner is hidden, the other appears, because our acts shine before our neighbors, but our intention is hidden inside, visible only to God. The amice is fastened at the chest because wicked thoughts are excluded from the priest’s mind due to his hope for the heavenly fatherland. The two bands that fasten the amice at the breast are fear of punishment and the desire for eternal life, which the hope for heavenly things engraves on our hearts. It is a white vestment, because all of these things are splendid in the eyes of the Lord.

Ch. 202
On the Alb

Next he puts on the alb, which the Law called the linen tunic or the talaris and the Greeks call the poderis οδήρις]. It denotes chastity, which adorns the whole life of the priest. It descends to the ankles because the priest must preserve chastity until the end of his life. The opening (caputium) through which the head is passed is his profession, in which he promised to observe chastity. The string (ligula) that tightens and loosens the opening is the power of the priestly tongue, which binds sinners and losses the penitent. This garment is trimmed in the middle, wider at the base, and is divided into numerous folds (commissuris), because the virtue of chastity is hemmed in on every side by the pressures of the world, but is nourished and expanded by charity and divided into many virtues. This whiteness of this vestment is brilliant, because holiness shines forth before the face of God and his Angels.

Ch. 203
On the Cingulum

Next the priest girds himself with the cingulum, called a belt in the Law and a zona by the Greeks. The cingulum is girded around the loins and tightened to prevent the alb from billowing out and impeding his step. It signifies custody of the mind or conscience, which curbs wantonness and protects chastity, lest he fall into carnal things that impede the progress of good works, or be cast down into ruin through concupiscence.

Ch. 204
On the Stole

The priest next places the stole, or orarium on his neck, through which we are to understand obedience to the Gospel. For the Gospel is the sweet yoke of the Lord, and obedience is the thong; so it is as if the priest is tied to the yoke of Christ with thongs when he puts the stole around his neck. It is placed first on the left shoulder and drawn across the heart to the right side, because obedience to the Gospel is first observed in the active life. Then it is drawn through love to the right side of the contemplative life, then it is adjusted around the neck to the right shoulder, but not removed from the left, because after a while loving obedience to God is raised up to contemplation, while because of his love of neighbor he is not withdrawn from his neighbors in the active life.

Ch. 205
On Innocence

The stole also expresses innocence, which was lost in the first man and recovered when the fatted calf was slain. Blessed are they who keep their stole from the stain of transgressions, and when stained wash it with their tears, because their strength is in the wood of life, and in Christ they will possess the glory they had lost. Now the patriarchs used this vestment before the Law, and they were called the birth-right (primogenita). It was a priestly garment that eldest sons, such as Jacob and Isaac, received with the paternal blessing, and used to offer sacrifices to God as priests. Hence it is written: Sell me your birthright (primogenita tua) (Genesis 25). This was Esau’s stole. The stola was once called missa: for it was a white garment reaching down to the ground, but after the introduction of the alb, it was changed to its current form.

Ch. 206
On the Subcingulum

Next the subcingulum, which is called the perizoma or subcinctorium, is hung twice around the loins. It signifies the love of almsgiving, which restrains the disorder of sin. It has two parts because it is a precept binding on everyone to save his own soul first by avoiding sin, and then by giving his neighbor all his due.

Ch. 207
On the Chasuble

The chasuble is worn on top of all the other vestments, and it is charity, the most eminent among all the virtues in our faith. Chasuble (casula) means a small house, for just as the whole man is covered by a house, so charity embraces the whole body of the virtues. This vestment is also called planeta (which means wandering (error), because its stray (errabundus) folds must be lifted by each arm. It is folded twice in two places at the chest and between the shoulders; in two places, i.e. the arms, it is triple folded. It is double-folded at the chest because charity generates a holy mind and a good will. It is double-folded between the shoulders because through the same charity we are able to bear the adversities imposed by both our neighbors and our enemies. The vestment is lifted at the arms when charity does good works. On the right arm it is triple folded, when charity serves monks, clergy, and Christians out of love for God. It is triple-folded on the left when we offer material necessities to bad Catholics, Jews, or pagans. The chasuble is raised by the left arm so that we may love our friends in God. It is folded on the left, so that we may love our enemies for the Lord. The amice is tied on the outside, because hope always implies charity.

Ch. 208
On the Maniple

In the last place, the priest places the fanon (fanonem) on his left arm, which is also called the maniple (mappula) and kerchief (sudarium) because formerly it was used to wipe sweat or clean the nose. It signifies penitence, by which the stain of our daily trespasses is wiped away. It is worn on the left arm because we may wash our life clean by penitence only in the present time.

Having put on all these vestments the priest goes forth. But first he makes a confession, because even if his life shines resplendently with these virtues, it is fitting that he should call himself an unworthy servant, accuse himself of his past sins, and admit his guilt, so that he may find grace before the face of God.


[2] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “Eucharist and Mission,” in Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith: The Church as Communion (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002), pp. 90–122; pg. 98.
[3] Ibid., pp. 98–99.

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